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What is leaky gut?

...and how does it affect not only our overall health, but our hormone balance too?

The lining of our intestines is actually a little like a wall with tiny holes like the pores on our skin for instance. They are located in the little spaces (junctions) between our gut cells. After we have digested food and it passes through our intestines, those tiny holes open up just enough to allow nutrients to pass through to our bloodstream, this is how the nutrients from our food get into our bloodstream so that our body can use them (for hormone production for instance).

If we have a healthy intestinal wall, these holes remain extremely tiny and only let through microscopic-size particles. If damage is done to your mucosal lining, it can cause the tiny junctions to open up too much and stay open, so this barrier, that is supposed to protect our body from the toxins and harmful bacteria, is no longer intact.

As a result, bacteria, toxins and partially undigested food particles “leak” into our bloodstream, triggering our immune system to react and creating overall inflammation and in the long run can lead to autoimmune disease, hormonal chaos and allergies.

A healthy gastrointestinal tract is so crucial to our health: this is where we absorb our nutrients, produce energy, hormones and immune responses, but also where we excrete hormones.

You remember me talking about constipation and how it can promote estrogen dominance? The same happens, if your intestinal wall is leaky and lets through metabolized estrogens: they stay in circulation causing estrogen dominance!

But part of our Estrogen is also produced in the gut: Estrone (E1), Estradiol (E2) & Estriol (E3). Mainly though E3 (our protective estrogen) which is essential for pregnancy and helps with reducing symptoms of menopause and osteoporosis.

The estrobolome is the collection of microbes in our gut that are capable of metabolizing and modulating the body’s circulating estrogens. That means that these bacteria help us detoxify the harmful estrogens in our body.

An example of this is endometriosis: It is an estrogen-dominant condition; however, recent studies have found that aside from hormonal regulation, an additive effect was observed between Estradiol (E2) and Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) on the proliferation of eutopic and ectopic endometrial cells, and the effect of Estradiol (E2) plus LPS leading to the growth of endometriosis.

Also, our thyroid will be impacted: part of our conversion of T4 (the inactive thyroid hormone) into the active form T3 occurs in your gut – but may be compromised if your gut is unhealthy. This is why in this case, even if you are taking synthetic T4, you will still struggle with low thyroid symptoms.

Chronic digestive distress leads to chronic inflammation. There we are again taking about Cortisol: when being in constant stress, our adrenal glands will constantly produce Cortisol which will lead to Cortisol resistance and that can also happen to our other hormone receptors: they might get resistant to absorbing the produced hormones. The same can happen to your insulin levels: the healthier your gut function, the more stable your blood glucose and also less cravings for snacks and other positive impacts like more energy, no brain fog etc If you have leaky gut though, it can predispose you to insulin resistance, where your energy cycle doesn’t work properly, which also reduces your ability to burn fat.

But also our appetite hormones are impacted: the unhealthy bacteria promoted by an unhealthy microbiome will impact your feeling for hunger and satiety via your appetite hormones levels of ghrelin (which makes you hungry) and leptin (which signals when you’re full).

Sleep and mood hormones: Around 80% of our serotonin (our happiness hormone) and melatonin (our sleep hormone) are made in our gut and will be impacted if you have leaky gut. This is why you might feel anxious, overwhelmed and have trouble falling asleep or sleeping though the night.

What causes leaky gut?

  • Poor diet: Eating processed foods or having history of eating processed foods, especially gluten! The wheat we are eating today has much higher levels of gluten. There’s a specific protein in gluten, Gliadin, stimulates the release of a substance called zonulin when it makes contact with the cells of the small intestine. Zonulin opens up the junctions between gut cells to allow nutrients to pass through. But if your immune system is run down, you are inflamed, or sensitive to zonulin or if you’re eating gluten several times per day, it can trigger leaky gut or prevent your body from restoring the tiny wholes in the gut lining. But also other plant components like lectins can damage your gut. Lectins are natural insecticides protecting plants from insects, fungi or other invaders, but they can also hurt your gut. Lectins can prevent the repair of our gut lining and they also stop your cells from producing mucus which keeps the lining of your gut wall protected. If you have issues like irritable bowel or autoimmune disease, reducing lectins is a good idea (or at least cut out foods that are particularly high in lectins, like grains and legumes). You can reduce the amount of lectins in these foods by soaking them 24hours in water with apple cider vinegar, but be aware that there will remain lectins in these foods.

  • Processed meats contain chemicals such as nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to cancer and inflammation.

  • Toxins from foods or packaging (pesticides, plastic, metal...), mold, polluted water, beauty or cleaning products…

  • Alcohol: just a daily glass of wine can irritate your gut lining –and just one episode of binge drinking can lead to leaky gut. Why? Alcohol can increase the levels of gram-negative bacteria in your gut which causes an increase in endotoxins, which can be absorbed via the intestine into your bloodstream, then taxied via the portal vein to your liver.

  • Dairy Products: at least 60% of people stop producing lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk after childhood. Consuming dairy although you are intolerant, will damage and inflame your gut.

  • The same goes for eating other foods you are reacting to: they will be different for everyone and are sometimes hard to find out without the right testing - you can read more here about food sensitivities. However, the most common foods are sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and corn. Some people are also reactive to nightshades (such as eggplants and potatoes. And others, especially people with IBS, IBD or SIBO, are reactive to FODMAPs – carbohydrates that cause unhealthy fermentation and bad bacteria build up.

  • Antibiotics as a drug but also in food

  • Painkillers like ibuprofen, Aspirin, Tylenol….

  • PPIs also known as acid blockers: over time lowered stomach acid can predispose you to inflammation, food sensitivities, parasites and other bacterial overgrowth and other immune responses.

  • Lack of mucous building bacteria in the gut - can be linked to a lack of diversity in your diet (especially of polyphenols and plant foods) for instance, but also to

  • Stress: not only impacts our gut indeed. High cortisol levels can increase gut inflammation, it also triggers us to overeat and crave sugar or other comfort foods.

  • Blood sugar roller coaster: as much as an unhealthy microbiome will impact your blood sugar levels, the same is true the other way round: if your blood sugar is unstable, it will wear out your pancreas, can increase gut permeability, and will stimulate yeast overgrowth. And don’t always think of sugar and carbs: coffee, alcohol and some dairy products also impact your blood sugar levels.

  • Low bile acids. Bile deficiency can contribute to chronic diarrhea, constipation, yellow stools and hormonal imbalances in women. Foods like daikon radish, lemon, lime watercress and artichokes can stimulate better bile flow.


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